For many, a toothache may bring up their deepest and darkest fears. The reality for many is that the dentist can send you through a wave of emotions, to the point that you may end up trying to avoid your appointment entirely.
Problems with your teeth only get worse if left unattended. That’s why the large proportion of people who suffer dental anxiety end up leaving a problem unchecked until it’s too late.
In such cases, you may eventually face the need to replace a lost tooth.
Common diseases like tooth decay and gum disease can lead to tooth loss. Traditionally, dentists have used dental bridges and dentures to replace diseased teeth. Dental implants were one of the late 20th century’s largest innovations in dental treatment. The replacement of teeth with space-age metal seems like we’ve reached an incredible level of technology.
But recent advances in stem cell research have revealed a future where dental implants could become old technology.
Are Stem Cells the Natural Tooth Replacement?
You might say that being a human makes us unlucky regarding how many teeth we get in our life. Over your lifetime, you have just two sets of teeth. Deciduous or baby teeth are lost by the time you’re 12 or 13 years old. That means your adult teeth have to last you for the rest of your life.
Some other species, meanwhile, have unlimited teeth during their lifetimes.
A shark is so fantastically unique at this they can replace teeth in just a few weeks. The idea of a shark’s mouth probably leaves you cringing about the one thing more terrifying than the dentist. But sharks are proof of nature’s ability to grow new teeth into adulthood.
Scientists have taken this lead and looked into the way that stem cells can be used to grow new teeth in an adult human.
Nature may have significant advantages over dental implants. Dental implants, due to cost and complexity, are not a common dental procedure. A procedure involving stem cells may provide a far more accessible and affordable tooth replacement option.
Dental implants, for instance, can’t be placed in people with certain conditions. Additionally, many people are fearful of the dental implant process. It requires oral surgery, which has advanced remarkably recently, but despite the rise in technology, dental implants aren’t without their pitfalls. Some of the potential drawbacks include the following:
- Healing time
- Lengthy procedure
- Difficult failure scenarios
- Lack of long-term research on implant longevity
So, with sharks in mind, are stem cells the future of replacing teeth?
What Are Dental Stem Cells?
The body contains many different types of cells. From birth, as a tiny speck, you aren’t equipped with all the different types of cells required in the body. Stem cells are what help you to create all the different organs and systems that make you you. They are an undifferentiated cell capable of changing to every cell in your body.
Stem cells can be found in most tissues of the body and help to create and replenish your body.
They are usually buried deep, in difficult to find places. They are often sparse and hidden amongst cells with a similar appearance.
Scientists have found that even teeth hold a reservoir of stem cells, which are found in baby teeth and also adult teeth. These cells have the full ability to replicate themselves.
Dental stem cells may have applications in many fields of medical science due to the compatibility with the body’s immune system. One problem with inserting stem cells is the body may reject them through an immune response. But apart from having potential roles in other medical procedures, the obvious application is actually to replace teeth.
Studies are beginning to show tangible pathways to tooth implantation with dental stem cells.
Scientists Can Grow Teeth in Animal Models
There has been significant progress in the use of stem cells in animal studies. Teeth have successfully grown at King’s College in London. Their research team combined human gum tissue and stem cells from mice teeth that undergo tooth formation. The cells themselves can seek out a blood supply from surrounding tissue to make a live tooth.
Other studies have had teeth successfully implanted into rats. At Harvard’s Whys Institute, a research team has found success in re-growing rat teeth. They used a technique using a low-power laser to activate stem cells to regrow tooth structure.
Over at Columbia University, one study has taken it to the next step. Here, researchers were able to guide stem cells to create a three-dimensional scaffold. The results showed that an anatomically complete tooth could grow in about 9 weeks.
The big question with all of these studies is to reproduce the results in humans. Of course, performing dentistry on rats was not without its challenges. While the dentin was incredibly similar to that which grows naturally, it isn’t exactly the same as humans.
Baby (Stem Cell) Steps
The biggest challenges facing dental stem cells are reproducing reliable human clinical outcomes. Instead of replacing entire teeth, stem cells may help to heal teeth as an interim step in the dental chair.
For example, teeth are known to contain cells that can heal the dentin layers themselves. There could be some intermediate steps for stem cells to heal teeth. In tooth decay, stem cells may be able to heal a cavity before a tooth requires root canal therapy. Stem cells may be able to repair dental pulp and direct the immune system to remove tooth decay-causing bacteria.
One thing for certain is that we all contain stem cells in our teeth. Instead of simply throwing a tooth in the bin after an extraction, we may be able to extract cells for a future when they can be used to replenish a tooth.
With many people moving to cryopreserve their own cells, it may become standard to store the stem cells held in our teeth. At the moment, baby teeth and wisdom teeth are the best candidates, and these are often the ones that we are losing the most. Healthy teeth contain these fascinating cells and may perform miracles in the dental chair in the future.